Tiffany Peng | Essays

Sparing the Designer’s Ego

For the past two years, I have taught a writing course titled Building a Discipline. I developed the course as a small way to foster the production of discourse about graphic design: We need more writers. Alongside great literary essayists (Orwell, Didion, Foster Wallace, Orlean, et al.), students read works from authors in design fields (Wigley, Kipnis, Wild, Earls, Blauvelt, et al.). Themes covered include describing, seeing, keywords, craft, and voice, which is followed by more concrete explorations of criticism and catalog essays. Following six 500–550 word “warm-up” essays, the students are given their final assignment, a 1200–1500 word essay that uses Design Observer’s archive as a launching point for their own essay. The assignment accomplishes a number of goals. By scouring the archive, students are introduced to many individuals that have contributed to our canon; students read excellent examples from a diverse group of authors; students familiarize themselves with both current and historic discourse; and students have to come to terms with their own outlook on the field of graphic design. —David Cabianca, York University, Toronto

I haven’t considered the possibility of planning my own funeral. Most people in society don’t. But Massimo Vignelli was not like most people—he went ahead and not only planned, but designed his own memorial service. The church where it’ll be held? He and his wife, Lena, designed the interior nearly forty years ago. The crematory urn that’ll hold his ashes? Custom-made to his design. From where the urn should be placed to the kind of music that should be played, everything was meticulously planned by the same man this service was for.

But as self-centered this project may have been, Massimo understood how good he was at what he did, and how much ego he could exert with it—there was no way he could have pulled off designing his own memorial service otherwise. Ken Gordon notes that a true egoist wouldn't handle something like designing their funeral so lightly. From the looks of it, we designers should follow Massimo’s example in recognizing the designer’s ego and its role. Doing so allows us to negate its consequences and properly exert an influence. I would define the designer’s ego a mindset that believes that one’s own design decisions are in the best interests of the designer, which would then translates to everyone else. In short, “if it works for me, it will work for everyone else, too.”

Nonetheless, having any sort of ego goes against nearly every other article about the designer’s ego in the first place. More often than not, the lesson to be had at the end was to get rid of the ego. Since it has been argued that design is a problem-solving profession, a successful designer must be the empathetic and reach an understanding with their clients, regardless of the designer’s own ideals or what they believe is best to properly do a job. The egoist puts him or herself and their own needs before everyone else. On the opposing side, empathizers are sensitive to the needs of others. Thus, professional designers must be empathizers. Kill the ego.

However, to kill the ego is an incredibly difficult, if not impossible feat. For some, an ego may be everything to a designer in order to survive in the business world. The suggestion that we designers should recognize our egos was one that should’ve been realized a lot sooner. Of course we should understand our own ego. Of course we should take care of its influences on our work. Of course we should find a balance between empathy and egoism. The problem is, how do we do so, and where do we start? How does one recognize their ego’s role in their work? It’s hard to admit having an ego, let alone trying to diminish its influences—especially if a designer is extremely egotistical in the first place. How would a designer gauge the impact of their ego, and how much of that impact needs to be reduced?

Let’s talk about the other kind of designer for a moment. The designers that generally receive praise, the designers that are humble. These designers are, as Gordon himself has noted, the kind of designers that “talk instead, and exclusively, about utility, serving the user, serving the client, serving humanity—anything and everything but serving themselves.” Similar to the egoist, how does one recognize their ego’s role, or the lack of, in their work? When these standards are being circulated, performed, and idealized, how can a designer recognize their ego when they’re constantly being told to prostrate themselves to others?

The humble, empathetic type of designers are those that I encounter the most as a design student. Because we’re still impressionable young chicks in the new designer’s nest, writing that advises us to abolish the ego can influence us more often than, say, a seasoned professional. It also doesn’t help that design educators also reverberate the same sort of dogma: “be confident in your work, but never be full of yourself.” There isn't an issue with that mindset, but it can mislead those who blindly follow dogma without understanding how ego can influence both design and designer.

Here’s an example. If the design student complies with the feedback of a hypothetical project without complaint, it’s possible that they may not enjoy what they’re designing. The same thing can happen with tough criticism. In turn, it’s more likely that the design student will believe their original design concept was the ideal one. But they can never say so, because being self-centered in design is taboo. As a result of constantly being told to be humble, the design student suppresses their ego, rather than truly “killing” it as so much writing tells us to do. The muzzled ego grows untamed and unnoticed throughout one’s education and eventually manifests itself as a false sense of “egoless purity,” to borrow Gordon’s terms. A modest designer born from believing that being humble is the ideal and correct thing to be is ironically egotistical.

Part of the issue comes from failure to grasp that young designers and design students are, for the most part, lacking the much needed industry experience that builds up to understanding the designer’s ego and what to be modest about. When most writers and design educators talk about being a humble designer, they speak from experience because they know implications of being egotistical in the industry. To design students, it’s all theory until they actually experience it for themselves. And if a new designer is always being preached to be a modest designer, they won’t be able to safely stretch out their ego until it’s too late.

At this point, we can see that design education can be considered as a valuable starting point in recognizing the designer’s ego. Having an ego is fine, but having too much can pose problems—society tends to generate animosity towards the braggart that assumes he knows better, and devalues anyone else that disagrees (see: Tr*mp). Hence design school, which is for all intensive purposes a safe space for education, would be an ideal place to cultivate and manage the designer’s ego. The idea that having an ego in design is inherently a bad thing needs to be thrown out the window here. Social and economical backlash are minimized in a learning environment, and empathy is learned through experience instead of being adhered to in theory, so there is no reason to teach design students that they should not have a designer’s ego.

Self esteem also comes into play in design education with regards to ego. Students are constantly and inevitably comparing themselves with each other in a learning environment. We can assume that at some point, there are design students who are not able to believe in themselves and the quality of their work. Nurturing the designer’s self esteem is essential to recognizing the designer’s ego—this is the aforementioned “be confident in your work” part. Exposing design students to tough critiques for the sake of learning is one way of doing this. Once a design student recognizes the value of their work, they are more prone to exerting their ego in future projects. The more confident and comfortable a design student is with their abilities, the better they can recognize their ego and consequently, take the time to learn how to diminish the impact of the designer's ego over the course of their education. Returning to the hypothetical design project: if the design student is able identify the discomfort between the project direction and their ego, and is confident enough to start a new concept altogether, it can not only result in an even better project, but the design student will actually enjoy the work.

Several article authors (and commenters) have stated that there is no place for art in design. Art is inherently egocentric, while design is empathic. There is still a constant disdain about the ego (and subsequently art and vice versa) in design. But it’s clear that the designer’s ego is still an amazing force to be reckoned with—Massimo’s funeral design was a testament to that. A funeral that was artfully executed, but still served its function. Overall, demonization of the designer’s ego needs to end, and design education is a good place to start that end. Only then can we follow Massimo’s example in recognizing the designer’s ego.

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